Survival knives: how do I choose the best one?
Survival knives come in many different shapes, sizes and materials. Throughout the years we have gathered so many brands we understand it has become quite tricky to find the right knife in between all these brands. For this reason we decided that we wanted to explain what a real survival knife is, what it should be able to do and how you can choose the survival knife that will best suit your needs.
What is a survival knife?
In order to say something about the different survival knives it is important to know what a survival knife actually is. This is, of course, open to interpretation which is why in this article we discuss our view on the matter.
We consider a survival knife to be a robust and versatile fixed knife you need to be able to trust regardless of the circumstances. You should be able to use a survival knife to split wood to make a fire and prepare food. However, you should also be able to use it for wood carving, for instance, when you need to build shelter. In addition, a survival knife should be able to be used for hunting purposes. Oh, and we shouldn’t forget that it should be able to take a punch.
Taking what we just discussed into account we already made a broad selection on our own survival knife page. However, with this selection we are still talking about at least 100 different knives. For this reason we will help you make a couple of choices and think about what you want.
What type of steel for a survival knife?
One of the first things you need to determine is what type of steel you prefer. And we are not even talking about the specific type of steel yet, simply the category. After all, steel used for knives can be divided into three categories: carbon steel, tool steel and stainless steel. It is very important to know that within those three categories there are hundreds of different types of steel each with their own qualities. Types of steel that, due to differences in the heat treatment, can respond very differently when used. As such we do not claim that what we are saying here is the absolute truth, all we do is give a broad overview.
You can easily sharpen a carbon steel survival knife in the field. It might not stay sharp as long, but are rewarded with sharpening comfort
Carbon steel is a type of steel with a high carbon content, something you might already had guessed when you first saw the name. Carbon steel is not stainless so simply putting it away while still wet or leaving fruit acids to set and will leave you with rust in mere hours/days. In addition, salt (water) is not appreciated. To prevent rust carbon steel is often enhanced with a coating which will save you a bit of maintenance. However, this sensitivity for rust does have a positive side. After all, a carbon steel survival knife is very tough and will not easily crack. Another benefit is the fact that you can easily sharpen a carbon steel survival knife in the field. It might not stay sharp as long, but you are rewarded with sharpening comfort.
Example: The type of carbon steel most used is 1095-steel.
Stainless steel for knives is a type of steel with a high carbon content, like carbon steel, but with an additional part of chrome. The chrome will protect the steel from rust. Not completely: it is, after all, stainless, not rustproof. Stainless steel is often a little more difficult to sharpen than carbon steel but this also differs per type of steel. In general stainless steel is not capable of handling a whole lot. Therefore, we will only recommend a stainless steel survival knife when you know for sure you will enter a humid/salty environment, without any options to maintain your knife.
Example: a couple of stainless types of steel we often see in outdoor/survival knives are: VG10, CoS, Sandvik 12C27, AUS8 and Böhler N690.
Finally, let’s talk about tool steel. These are the types of steel with a high carbon content and some chrome, but not enough to fit in the category of carbon steel or stainless steel. They combine the best of both worlds. After some time they can rust, but not as fast as carbon steel. At the same time they can handle quite a lot and they are (often) easy to sharpen.
Example:Some more frequently used tool steels are Sleipner and D2.
The handles on a survival knife
A fine blade is, of course, crucial. However, you shouldn’t forget the fact that you need to be able to hold it properly. The handle is just as important! One of the most popular materials used for handles is called micarta, a type of composite material made from linen and synthetic resin. The result is an incredibly strong material. Micarta will offer you enough grip even when it is wet out. It can withstand changes in temperature and differences in humidity. In addition, Micarta is maintenance free, abrasion-resistant and very comfortable in hand. A sublime material for almost any knife.
Another great example of a stable material is G10 which is made from fibreglass and synthetic resin. In terms of qualities and use it closely resembles micarta. However, in terms of grip in wet circumstances micarta is slightly better.
In addition to micarta and G10 you can also use rubber for the handles. Sometimes pure rubber, sometimes a synthetic mixture and sometimes as an ‘over mould’ around a core of another type of material. Rubber is, of course, completely immune to humidity and depending on the added texture it will offer you amazing grip. As a result rubber is a perfectly stable material during many circumstances. Especially in wet conditions. However, if we do need to highlight a downside of this material it would have to be the fact that it cannot withstand heat that well.
We do not prefer wooden handles when it comes to survival knives. Why? Because of the stability of wood. After all wood can crack at any time and the shape can change when the humidity and/or temperature changes. There are, of course, stabilized and laminated types of wood where this is less of an issue. However, when it comes to survival situations we rather not take any chances and prefer to play it safe with synthetic materials.
So what type of survival knife should I go for?
Based on what we just discussed you might already be able to make your choice. However, to help you even further we have a number of tips you should take into account.
Choose a knife with a great reputation
The most popular survival knife brands in our range are ESEE Knives, KA-BAR, Ontario Knife Company, Fällkniven and TOPS. However, this, of course, doesn’t mean that these are the only good knife brands out there. All we are saying is that these are popular brands because, in the category survival knives, they have been creating a wide range of great knives.
Carefully think about the weight and the length of the blade
A ESEE Junglas is so long you can use it to split large blocks of wood. Very useful. However, at the same time the long blade adds a lot of weight to the Junglas. If you are thinking of purchasing this knife you need to think about if the added weight will outweigh the benefits of a longer knife.
Popular knives and our recommendations
Finally we like to introduce you to a couple of popular choices and knives we recommend.
ESEE Model 5
The ESEE Model 5 is an indestructible survival knife made from 1095 carbon steel. Very sturdy and easy to sharpen yourself. The thick blade splits wood within seconds and the micarta handle is often praised.
Fällkniven S1 Pro
Do you simply want to have the best survival knife there is? If you do the Fällkniven Pro collection is what you have been looking for. Stainless CoS steel which can easily be sharpened and at the same time can handle quite a lot. Enhanced with a rubber handle which will stay in perfect shape under all circumstances. Delivered in a waterproof case with a double-sided sharpening stone. Available as F1 Pro (small), S1 Pro (all-round medium) and A1 Pro (large outdoor ‘sword’).
KA-BAR Becker BK2
The KA-BAR Becker BK2 is a beast, with no other knife you will get more bang for your buck. The BK2 is made from tough 1095 carbon steel and is incredibly thick. The sheath is simple, versatile and good. The Zytel handle is comfortable but we recommend the combi deal that includes the upgrade to a micarta handle.
Cold Steel Master Hunter
The Cold Steel Master Hunter CPM 3V is a knife from the outdoor category. Designed as a hunting knife but so solid and made from such a fine type of steel it is also perfect as a survival knife. CPM 3V is sometimes also called the unbreakable type of steel. Reasonably good to sharpen, it maintains its sharpness pretty well and it is so strong you can use it to easily break a brick in half.
As you might have noticed choosing the best survival knife isn’t that easy. We hope that this article has taught you what you should pay attention to when you are looking for a survival knife. Here you can find a collection of all our survival knives.